Tuesday, June 6, 2023

“The trust had no sexual assault policy, and nobody answered the Speak Up phone line”

  1. Adele Waters, freelance journalist,
  2. Ingrid Torjesen, freelance journalist

  1. London

After being assaulted at work, a junior surgeon looked up her hospital trust’s sexual safety policy and found it lacking. She spoke to The BMJ under the condition of anonymity.

“In October 2019 I had just started a job as a junior surgeon at a London hospital. About two weeks in, I was observing an operation being undertaken by a male registrar when the supervising consultant, who I had met before in handover meetings, came into the operating theatre to check whether he needed to supervise anything. While he was doing that, he stood behind me and started massaging my back.

“I immediately froze, and then I moved away, pretending to get a better look at what my colleague was doing. The consultant left, but later, at the end of the operating list, he came back to see if we needed anything. I was writing up the operation notes when he said goodbye, and then he kissed the top of my head and quickly walked away.

“I was so confused. It was just so strange because there was nothing that I had done to invite any of this. It was very uncomfortable, and I felt very unsafe. If this had happened in broad daylight during an operation, I hated to think about what he would do if the situation was more obscured. From then on, I tried to be very closed off with my body language. I wouldn’t look him in the eye. I would be hypervigilant about where he was, avoiding being in the same room and always leaving when he came in.

“At the Christmas party I spoke to 10 other junior doctors with similar stories. The consultant was described as “handsy” by one who said that he touched her without her permission. Another said that he kissed her on her neck. A manager said that he cornered her in the stairwell by putting both of his arms around her to the wall and tried to kiss her, and she just barely managed to escape. Another colleague said that at work social events he would always sit next to her and flirt with her. One night he had grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth when saying goodbye. These things left me feeling scared.

“I thought that if I didn’t speak up, it would keep happening to other women. But I also feared that, if I reported him, he would get me fired, and I was dependent on my job. My partner and I needed that income.

“In the end, I told my head of department, a male consultant, about how the other consultant had touched me without permission and what other women had told me. He had worked with the perpetrator for many years. He acknowledged what happened and said that he was really sorry to hear that, but he also said, “He hugs me all the time; he’s quite a touchy feely person.” He gave me three options: I could speak to the perpetrator directly, he could speak to him on my behalf, or I could make an anonymous complaint, but he’d probably find out that it was me, because it’s a small department.

“I decided to look into the hospital policies myself. I printed them out and read them. I looked at the bullying and harassment policy, the Speak Up policy, and the procedure for whistleblowing and raising a concern. I looked at the equality, diversity, and inclusion policy, but it didn’t have much relevance. That’s all that I found that was potentially relevant.

“I called the Speak Up phone number four different times, but no one answered. I didn’t feel comfortable writing an email because I was still working there, so in the end, I left it. I knew he was very popular in the field, and it is a small community. Even if people believed me, there would still be that stain on my image, especially as a female doctor.

“Since then, I have left medicine. But I still worry every time I am near the hospital that he might be there.”

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